Sweet Magnolia Gelato Co. owner Hugh Balthrop first began dabbling in homemade ice cream as a way to make a more wholesome snack for his three kids. Now, he’s selling his sweets in local shops and shipping nationally, running a gelato shop in Oxford, Mississippi, and preparing to open a second store in Crosstown Concourse this spring.
Balthrop’s wife has a busy career as an OB-GYN, so as the couple were raising their kids in Clarksdale, Mississippi in the mid-2000s, Balthrop took on the task of preparing the family’s meals and homemade desserts.
“So of course, I made ice cream. I had one of those Cuisinart ice cream machines,” Balthrop says. “Then I discovered Jeni’s [Splendid] Ice Cream. She was using local ingredients available in her area in Ohio.”
The idea of creating homemade ice cream and gelato made from regionally and locally sourced ingredients sparked a passion for Balthrop. And he soon found himself enrolling in ice cream school.
“I took Penn State University’s ice cream course, and then I studied under a gelato master,” Balthrop says.
Balthrop had hoped he could use the family guest house in Clarksdale as a commercial kitchen to launch his business, but his wife vetoed that idea.
“She said that was for guests and mom, and I had to find somewhere else. So, there was an opportunity at the local Chamber of Commerce in Clarksdale. They had an incubator facility, and that’s where I started my wholesale business,” he says.
From the start, Balthrop worked to find local and regional farmers to supply milk and other ingredients to use in his handcrafted gelato and sorbet. Today, Sweet Magnolia sources organic milk and cream from Brown Family Dairy in Oxford, honey from Powell and Sons in Clarksdale, and coffee beans from Beanfruit Coffee Company in Jackson, Mississippi.
“That’s what we do that distinguishes us from other purveyors. I know where everything comes from — the honey, the sorghum, the milk. Everything we can source locally, we do,” he says.
In true grassroots style, Balthrop took samples to local restaurants and grocery stores in his area and asked for an honest critique. Once he’d perfected his formula, around 2011 and 2012, he began selling gelato and sorbet in some Clarksdale restaurants. Eventually, he gained his first retail partner — Miss Cordelia’s in Memphis — followed shortly by High Point Grocery and Whole Foods. Eventually that reach grew to 15 Whole Foods stores in the Southern region, but the Whole Foods sales began to slump after Amazon bought the company.
“They changed their business model, and we weren’t able to come in and do demos anymore. That was the only way we had presence against the big boys. If you taste our product, you can taste the difference. Once we stopped with the demos, the sales went down and we had to stop selling in all the stores except for one,” Balthrop says.
At that point, around 2019, Balthrop decided to “take destiny in our own hands” and open his first retail location at Puck Food Hall in Memphis. His wholesale business was (and still is) operating out of Oxford, but the first retail location was in Memphis. Things were going well at Puck Food Hall until Puck’s owner closed the building in late 2020.
By that time, Balthrop had opened a retail location in Oxford, and now, he’s preparing to open another in Crosstown Concourse.
“We were looking at Concourse for a long time. I thought it would be a good fit. I love the arts, the music, the food, and the high school,” Balthrop says. “Everything about Concourse is conducive to what we want in a retail location. We just think Concourse is a special place.”
The family business — Hugh’s kids (now 13, 16, and 19) all work for Sweet Magnolia — will offer Concourse visitors seasonal scoops of all the Sweet Magnolia favorites, like Miss Mary’s Pound Cake, Banana Pudding, Whiskey and Pecans, and Honey Vanilla among others.
But if you ask Balthrop his favorite recommendations, he sticks with the classics: “It goes back to childhood favorites, pistachio and lemon custard.”